Mineral TV and the Archipelago of Abandoned Shopping Malls

“A mediaeval cathedral was a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV programme that was supposed to tell people everything indispensable for their everyday life, as well as for their eternal salvation.” So says Umberto Eco, speaking at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Egypt, 2003.

[Image: Cathedral at Bourges, by Arnaud Frich].

This makes me wonder if everyone on Earth could take everything they know and carve it into a cliffside somewhere – or a mountain – sculpting all that rock into a cathedral; and, then, if they could take that hulking monolith of information and minerals and break it off, launch it into orbit, send it drifting through space… It’d be a kind of moving table of contents for the human species. A knowledge-object.
Would that have a better chance than NASA’s so-called Golden Record, that got sent out with Voyager, of explaining the Earth and human history to distant civilizations?

[Image: NASA’s Golden Record, “intended to communicate a story of our world to extraterrestrials.” The record is really “a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth,” including the sound of “surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales, and other animals,” and a signed letter from then-president Jimmy Carter. A Menudo video was reportedly removed at the last minute].

Or, instead of demolishing old buildings, perhaps we should detach them from the Earth’s surface and send them into space as lessons for alien species. Like that Michael Crichton novel. You could learn about the Earth by studying its architecture – because the planet flings buildings everywhere. Constantly.
Archipelagoes of abandoned shopping malls pulled slowly toward distant planets. There goes the Mall of America…
A new film directed by Jerry Bruckheimer.

Roof-farming southeast London


Swiss Cheese City, by London-based architecture firm Agents of Change (AOC), proposes that “vacancy in cities” is really “a starting point for a new urban form.” Accordingly, the project hopes to “generate new possibilities from holes in the built fabric,” such as “Special Cultivation Zones (SCZs).”
Special Cultivation Zones are an urban land-bank, defined by “temporary boundaries within which land can’t be bought or sold, and emerging skills, social networks and locally-grown produce are cultivated in the ‘vacant’ city fabric.”
(For more on urban farming, see Pruned or Inhabitat).
Then there’s AOC’s Croydon Roof Divercity project –


– which radically rethinks the landscape of Croydon’s roofs (and sounds really, really fun): “Taking the flat roofs of Croydon as our testbed,” they write, “we propose a new roofscape for the city – beaches, ice rinks, golf courses, allotments, skateboard parks and pasture refresh Croydon’s tired concrete.” How about a shooting range? (For more on green roofs, see Inhabitat).
After all, AOC asks, how could London be adapted “to an agricultural logic – the logic of rotation, seasons, ground and growth?”
Thus, with a vision straight out of sci-fi, they describe Hackney New Garden City, complete with an “Agricultural Action Zone (AAZ).” This would include “a self-sufficient ecology of grass roads, localised rainwater collection, organic solar films and biological compost systems… liberating the ground’s agricultural potential.”


[Images: Hackney New Garden City, before and after].

For another place you could put those ideas to work, see Philadelphia’s Urban Voids; then check out these photos of “arbortecture” – or, plants growing out of buildings. (Via Pruned).

Deep Space Hilton

[Image: The “inflatable multilayered polymer hull” of this orbiting hotel room “will be around 30 centimetres thick and will contain layers of Kevlar – as used in bullet-proof vests – to provide some protection against micrometeorites and space debris” – as well as from rowdy hotel guests. Click on to enlarge; from New Scientist].

Might future space tourists need an inflatable space hotel? Of course – and “Las Vegas hotelier Robert Bigelow is aiming to supply it. Bigelow made his fortune as the owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, and he is now launching a $500 million effort to expand his business off-planet.”
The design for Bigelow’s space hotel was taken from “TransHab, a never-used NASA design for an inflatable space station.” (TransHab also appears in an old BLDGBLOG post on astrobiology).
The space hotel “will provide 330 cubic metres of living space for space tourists or industrial researchers” – or even maximum security prisoners…? Instead of a secret prison city, they build a secret prison satellite-archipelago… Forget the death penalty: you’re sent alone into outer space.
Setting up the prison break film of the century.
They whiz you up there in a space elevator

[Images: Check out the Space Elevator blog, the LiftPort website and image gallery (“dedicated to building a mass transportation system to open up access to the inner solar system”), and some other technical drawings here].

– but don’t forget to pack your toothbrush.
If the your hotel room begins to wander, of course, a space tether could save you (a “100-kilometre-long ‘fishing line’ that spins freely in space may one day catch and fling satellites to higher orbits… using just solar power and the Earth’s magnetic field”); and if the tether fails, you can always use Richard Gott’s map of the universe to find your way home. (“Gott realised that… if he drew our galaxy to fit on the page, he’d need another 100 kilometres of paper to show the most distant quasar” – skip to bottom of link to see how he made the map work).
Or it serves as home for an exiled author, writing back from deep space.

(With thanks to the excellent Interactive Architecture dot Org, as well as the always ahead of its time we make money not art).

tropical.bldg

“Tropical Green” runs 9-10 February 2006, down in sunny Miami: “The two-day Tropical Green conference will be an invaluable experience for architects, interior designers, developers, city planners, politicians, and voters in search of learning the ways of 21st century design that will both help the environment and their wallets.” Check it out.

It’s funny, meanwhile, but I’m reading The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard, even as I post this, and his descriptions – written in 1962 – of a flooded, neo-tropical London have totally changed my conception of what “a tropical city” actually is.

In Ballard’s novel the sun has developed a kind of astrophysical Tourette’s Syndrome, and it’s started scorching the planet with radiation storms and UV bursts. This has melted the icecaps, raised the ambient global temperature to 120º+ and forced everyone to move to northern Canada and Siberia.

London has become a kind of backed-up toilet of silt and Jurassic vegetation, “a nightmare world of competing organic forms returning rapidly to their Paleozoic past.” Huge iguanas lumber around in the heat. Buildings left and right are collapsing, their lower six floors immersed in polluted seawater, “miasmic vegetation… crowding from rooftop to rooftop.”

The city is fossilizing.

As Ballard writes: “A few fortified cities defied the rising water-levels and the encroaching jungles, building elaborate sea-walls around their perimeters, but one by one these were breached. Only within the former Arctic and Antarctic Circles was life tolerable.”

[Image: The Drowned World‘s rather unimpressive cover…].

So the story goes that a research biologist is touring this neo-tropical London, boating from hotel to hotel across fetid lagoons, recording the types of plants that infest the city. Meanwhile monsoons are coming up from the south, everyone is dying of skin cancer and no one can sleep. The intensity of the sun’s radiation is making everything mutate.

In between some eyebrow-raising moments of bad pop-Nietzschean pseudo-philosophy – the surviving humans find themselves psychologically regressing down the totem pole of evolution toward… something or other; it’s all very psychedelic and 2001 – there are some cool descriptions of these new urban tropics:

“Giant groves of gymnosperms stretched in dense clumps along the rooftops of the submerged buildings, smothering the white rectangular outlines… Narrow creeks, the canopies overhead turning them into green-lit tunnels, wound away from the larger lagoons, eventually joining the six hundred-yard-wide channels which broadened outwards toward the former suburbs of the city. Everywhere the silt encroached, shoring itself in huge banks against a railway viaduct or crescent of offices, oozing through a submerged arcade… Many of the smaller lakes were now filled in by the silt, yellow discs of fungus-covered sludge from which a profuse tangle of competing plant forms emerged, walled gardens in an insane Eden.

Anyway, one could analyze the metaphors and all that – Ballard uses the word “competing” twice in the examples above (is he projecting a neo-Hobbesean vision onto Nature…? etc.) – but one could also find something better to do.

And, of course, one could also attend the sustainable design for tropical cities conference in Miami – and tell them you heard about it on BLDGBLOG…

The Pillars of Tokyo

If Fernando Galli Bibiena, famed scenographer, designer extraordinaire of endless, receding, Baroque pillared symmetries, with trick halls and mirage-like backdrops—

—were cloned next year, raised in Hollywood, and hired to remake Total Recall, he’d probably make something like this:

It’s Tokyo’s massive “G-Cans Project,” a subterranean system of polished concrete viaducts built “for preventing overflow of the major rivers and waterways spidering the city.”

This emergency overflow-sewer is apparently “the largest in the world,” with “five 32m diameter, 65m deep concrete containment silos which are connected by 64 kilometers of tunnel sitting 50 meters beneath the surface. The whole system is powered by 14000 horsepower turbines which can pump 200 tons of water a second.”

The G-Cans Project reveals the quasi-mythic splendor of grandiose civic infrastructure, something the United States is ridding itself of entirely—yet also something Japan is now all but entombed within.

A “construction state”—or doken kokka—has effectively taken over the Japanese economy, according to Gavan McCormack in the New Left Review. The doken kokka, McCormack writes, “is opaque, unaccountable, and therefore hard to reform. Essentially, it enables the country’s powerful bureaucrats to channel the population’s life savings into a wide range of debt-encrusted public bodies—those in charge of highways, bridge-building, dams and development initiatives,” and that means “promising new public-works projects,” thus “concreting the archipelago.”

Under construction right now, in fact, is “a grandiose [national development plan] calling for the construction of new railway lines, express highways, airports, information systems, no less than six new bridges between the islands, large dams and nuclear installations and, last but far from least, a new capital city… to take over many functions from Tokyo.”

The article is pretty amazing, actually, even shocking—though I do have to say that some of the projects it describes would be an engineer’s dream. But it comes with the realization that all this frenzied global construction may be more than just a bubble—see recent analyses of China’s own building boom, for instance—or Dubai—but a kind of hysteria, a building-pathology.

One wonders, in fact, if there might be a disease, something Freud discovered, a neurosis of some kind: suddenly you start building things, and you don’t stop building things. You move beyond talking—building, building, always building—and soon you’re like the father in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with mashed potatoes all over your hands and there’s a mountain in your living room. That, or you’ve just built the world’s largest sewer.

(See earlier on BLDGBLOG).

Nobson Newtown

I just found an old article from frieze about graphic artist Paul Noble‘s “monumental eight-year project… [to create] a fictional city called Nobson Newtown.”


Nobson Newtown was an “exercise in self-portraiture via town planning,” involving “the painstaking design of a special font based on the forms of classic modernist architecture.”
The “city,” in other words, was made of words.


“Variously described as ‘3-D Scrabble tiles’ or ‘Lego blocks’, Noble’s pictograms name the buildings that they depict. From the hospital (Nobspital) to the cemetery (Nobsend) via the town centre (Nobson Central) or the Mall, citations from Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, Gerard Winstanley’s letters to Oliver Cromwell or T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland are camouflaged within the fields, the trees or the brickwork. Noble’s project embodies a complex infrastructure of civil planning, social policies and historical perspectives” – and it was all done with pencil. (Book available here).


“At first,” says the BBC, “the drawings appear to be depictions of a crazy Babylonian society, with a touch of Brueghel’s Tower Of Babel and Robert Crumb’s rounded comic strips. Then you realise each building is also a 3-D letter of the alphabet spelling out hard to decipher sentences in Noble’s self-created Nobfont.”


But he wasn’t the first.
Nearly two decades earlier, in 1980, Steven Holl published his own “Alphabetical City” through Pamphlet Architecture, and it, too, consisted entirely of buildings that were actually letters, that were actually a city, that… – but the funny thing is, Holl’s drawings look absolutely, unpublishably stupid compared to Noble’s:


Hello? One wonders which two-minute lunch break Holl took to draw those… Or was it thirty seconds?
In any case, the creation of architectural space through a tweaking of the alphabet is not an inherently interesting proposition, but Noble’s eye-failure-inducing drawings reward repeated viewings. Just blink occasionally.
The buildings, frieze‘s Tom Morton claims, look like, “odd, wind-carved rock formations. Standing on higher ground, squinting against the sun, we’d see that they formed an eroded text.”
Here I’m reminded of the idea of “slow sculpture” from China Miéville’s novel, Iron Council:
“Huge sedimentary stones… each carefully prepared: shafts drilled precisely, caustic agents dripped in, for a slight and so-slow dissolution of rock in exact planes, so that over years of weathering, slabs would fall in layers, coming off with the rain, and at very last disclosing their long-planned shapes. Slow-sculptors never disclosed what they had prepared, and their art revealed itself only long after their deaths.”
Perhaps, in those dissolving rocks, you could plan a slow and secret alphabet…

Geomagnetic harddrive

In her recent biography of Sir Christopher Wren – whose towers, domes and steeples appear in the image above – Lisa Jardine describes how she discovered that the London Monument, designed in 1677 by Wren and Robert Hooke together, is actually “a unique, hugely ambitious, vastly oversized scientific instrument” that uses “strategically placed vents and vantage points” to function as a multi-purpose observation deck and lab for measuring atmospheric pressure.

While I was living in Berlin a few years ago, it struck me once that the U-Bahn system could pass, in its own way, for a different kind of “hugely ambitious, vastly oversized scientific instrument” – before I realized, of course, that the Tube, the Metro, the NY subway, etc. – the Beijing underground, Prague, Rome and so forth – all of them could pass for such “scientific instruments.”

In other words, those buried urban routes, with all their circuits linked and cross-connected into electrically mechanized networks that passed through mineral deposits and solid bedrock – including the various branches of late-night service that maintained more or less perpetual motion, humming and soaring through manmade canyons beneath parks and plazas and apartment blocks, as if to imply that the global geotechnical industry had been taken over by Athanasius Kircher


I realized that, in all that tumult of foundations and energy, you could, if you wanted to, listen for the subtle, cello-like moan of distant trains; and it occurred to me that the whole system, the entirety of the Berlin U-Bahn, could pass for a working model of the universe. A sonic model, at the very least, of the so-called Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. A vaulted hum, reverbing back and through itself beneath the city.

Or – and this next idea is only slightly less ridiculous, for you cynics out there – it occurred to me that if the U-Bahn system could somehow be hooked up to massive, earth-anchored magnets, and made, therefore, to produce a magnetic field of its own, that you could transform all of Berlin into a geomagnetic harddrive.

As a sail traps the wind, a planetary harddrive would use geomagnetism.

Provided constant motion on behalf of the trains, I thought, and given absolutely gigantic magnets of the right polarity and location, Berlin could start producing its own magnetic field – which meant that any city with a subway could be transformed into a harddrive. Harddrive London. Harddrive Beijing.

Harddrive Moscow.

Of course, it’s obvious even to me that you’d have to do quite a lot more than just bury some magnets underground in order to transform a city into a harddrive – you’d need a shovel, for instance, and perhaps some strong anti-manic drugs; but my point is that if Christopher Wren could build a tower that simultaneously memorialized the Great Fire of London even as it acted as a scientific device, then perhaps you could turn urban infrastructure itself into a kind of working scientific apparatus.

You could turn all of Berlin into a geomagnetic harddrive.

Urban rock walks, or: how to podcast a landscape

If you’ve ever wondered what the streets and buildings and monuments of the UK are constructed from, a good enough place to start is the BBC’s Walks with Rocks, where psychogeography meets paleontology meets continental drift. Paleo-psycho-ontogeography, perhaps. In any case, now you can learn the geological origins of paving stones, the density, formation pressures and tectonic ancestry of the architraves on that rockin’ bldg across the street from Boots.


For instance: ‘Looking at the foyer of Berkeley Square House we can see Norwegian igneous combined with Italian freshwater spring limestones. The adjacent Citroen and Rolls Royce showrooms tempt us with Tethyan limestone full of fossils. The Tethyan region was the seaway that lay to the South of the Eurasian Continent and to the North of Australia/India/Africa during the Late Paleozoic and Early Mesozoic periods’ – from Stop 7 on the Dover Street, W1, map.
While you’re at it, my televisual posts continue with British Isles: A Natural History on BBC One: ‘The series and inserts explore how over three billion years Britain has been boiled in lava, buried under tropical swamps and swept by desert sands. They show how it was crushed by enormous glaciers, released by warm winds, forested from north to south and how the influence of human life has dramatically changed the landscape.’ You can also ask what’s beneath your feet – no, it’s not sheepshit, it’s…
Then there are these audio recordings from the BBC’s new *Coast* show, which despite suffering from a rather alarming quantity of badly-accented historical reenactors offers one model for how to podcast a landscape.
Here’s a link to the first episode of the TV show, which, in combination with the second episode, traces out the following geography:


Finally, more Atlantis b.s. in the news, but I still think it’s cool: another tsunami theory, this one about Spartel Island (now submerged) in the Straits of Gibraltar:

The light/surface fold: advertisements, Steven Holl, et cetera

I noticed several years ago that the pine forests outside Chapel Hill, NC, fill with a strange white light in winter, and not for the obvious reasons that, yes, it’s winter, so the leaves are all gone: ergo more light.
Nope: it’s because the angle that the earth takes in relation to the sun has changed, as it does every winter, and so the forests have literally begun to glow: the sun has begun hitting them at a different angle.
Winter, in this regard, is really a question of spherical geometry, angles, and trigonometric effects at long distances: sun–>earth/angle of incidence (or whatever). One of winter’s more interesting side effects, then, is the way that it transforms shadows – making them longer and thinner – while simultaneously illuminating objects from the side. This brings out details that go unremarked – and unlit – in other seasons.
All of these written reflections having been inspired by this photograph:


What’s interesting here is how the billboard enlists sun/earth trigonometry in the selling of suntan lotion. Who’da guessed?
But so I got to thinking about what would happen if you did more of that with architecture, if you learned a spatio-architectural lesson from however brief a glance at that billboard.
The deliberate shadow-machining effects of different times of day, say, in the vein of Steven Holl: entire hallways and galleries and courtyards and milled surface details could become visible only at specific hours, perhaps in pre-patterned ways.
Like an inhabitable sundial, you would always know it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon because the little grilled incisions in the plaster of the upstairs walls just appeared. They were invisible before that, and will be invisible again: but now is their moment in the light…
Or you know it’s noon because there are suddenly no shadows of any kind in your courtyard: you’ve angled everything perfectly for that moment. The space folds in on itself, reboots back to undisturbed white, and at 12:01pm the shadows reappear.
I just mean to point out the connection, here, between architecture and astronomy – via spherical, planetary trigonometrics – not because I’m the first to do so or even because it’s ultimately all that interesting, but because every little mundane trace – mere shadows – can be seen as an indication of literally superior, astro-stellar relationships.
Every shadow, if you do the math right, if you know the angles and the trig and the spherical velocity of objects in space, is actually an indication of the time of day – in a calendar that precedes Swatch and Swiss Army and electricity and even biological organisms as such.
And every kid with a flashlight – every person with a match or candle – every architect, even – can participate. Everything you build can be – and is automatically – an astronomical event.